African Hotel Group CEO Spotlights Continent’s Promise During Africa Business Week at UVA Darden
By Dave Hendrick
Mossadeck Bally, CEO and chairman of Azalaï Hotels Group, comes from a line of commodities traders based out of Mali, and at one point it seemed he would follow in the family’s footsteps.
After college in San Francisco, Bally worked in commodities and dabbled in starting a mango processing plant. Two considerations put him on his current trajectory of being a hospitality leader in Africa. One, working in commodities could be lucrative, but it did not provide enough jobs to help the community. Two, colleagues he worked with in Africa frequently complained about the quality of the lodging available to them in the region.
Bally, who addressed the University of Virginia Darden School of Business community at a Leadership Speaker Series address during the Darden African Business Organization-hosted Africa Business Week, developed a vision for what he described as a “pan-Africa hotel chain” with a “quality of service that respects international standards.”
Bally began his hospitality journey with the purchase of the Grand Hotel de Bamako in Mali, a purchase made possible with loans from the Bank of Africa and the World Bank’s International Finance Corp. From that single purchase, Azalaï has steadily expanded, and now counts 10 properties across six countries — the only African native-owned hotel chain in a region dominated by international groups.
Doing business in Africa is not the easiest path, Bally said, citing a lack of widespread, acceptable infrastructure, a capital scarcity and occasional security concerns as key impediments. Indeed, Azalaï’s property in Burkina Faso was thoroughly ransacked in 2014.
Why proceed in a landscape of uncertainty?
“That’s where leadership comes in,” Bally said. “A leader is someone who wants, who believes and who is willing to have an impact.”
Bally said his vision for a new standard of hospitality always took into account the impact on a variety of stakeholders, including the generation of young people in Africa who could potentially gain access to career ladder-climbing jobs.
To that end, Azalaï opened its own hospitality school in 2015, helping to train young people for positions in the hospitality industry. Women account for 57 percent of the graduates and the program has a 95 percent success rate, Bally said.
While leading in developing countries may not be the easiest path, it can be richly rewarding, Bally said, and Africa remains a land of what he described as incredible potential.
Bally summarized his leadership lessons as:
- Have a vision
- Be resilient
- Be humble
- Be patient
- Invest in People
Watch: Mossadeck Bally on How Consequential Business Decisions Require a Leadership Mindset
Africa Business Week Speakers and Events Cover Diverse Continent, Cultures, Opportunities
The talk by Bally was part of a full slate of Africa Business Week programming, with events including a panel on entrepreneurship in African markets with leaders from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Cameroon and Ghana; a session on private equity in Africa with Kupanda Capital Co-founder and Managing Partner Bobby Pittman; and a Q&A between Darden Professor Dennis Yang and W. Gyude Moore, former minister of public works in Liberia, on the role of Chinese development in Africa.
Moore, a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C., had oversight of construction and management of Liberia’s public infrastructure from 2014 to 2018, and testified to the Chinese influence in the continent.
Echoing a point heard throughout the week, Moore noted the difficulty in generalizing about economic conditions in Africa, a continent with 54 distinct countries.
“It’s difficult to talk about Africa as a unit,” Moore said. “Africa is not a country.”
Generally, Moore spoke of the need to ensure that development projects in African countries benefit many, and not just a few. Many of Africa’s valuable resources, from cocoa to the minerals that power electric car batteries, are often extracted with minimal value for laborers or domestic institutions.
Development issues in African nations are complex, and improvement will only be seen with the election of leaders committed to greater equity and equality, Moore said, noting that he earned his position only because of the vision and commitment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Sirleaf, who was elected president of Liberia in 2006.
Said Moore, “The idea that you can craft technical solutions and ignore politics is ridiculous.”
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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